Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

On the one hand, “Funeral Oration” can be read simply as the speaker’s exploration of his “felt though minor guilt” for having killed what after all was a brother in the family of life. Thus, he personifies the mouse, making it into “a guest/ who shared our board” and a worshiper of a religion. Braver and older than the speaker, the mouse is also feared bigger and stronger, able to pull the speaker along “into the common death beyond the mousetrap.” Not only, then, is the mouse equal to or better than the human who doomed it, it in effect becomes in turn a trap to that human, forcing upon him an acute awareness of how frail his own grasp on life is. Worse, he realizes that the act of killing was itself born of the pettiness of his own “grasping” life, bloated with its “stolen baits”—that is, born from a small-minded desire to rid himself of what to him was a pest, but which indeed was an honorable little beast. His self-centered ego forced into humility, the speaker seems to repent of his act with a larger awareness of the vital connection between all mortal things.

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Were this the only theme of the poem, it could be characterized as an elegantly executed, although pedestrian, effort; however, the poem contains more subversive suggestions. How, for example, is the reader to understand the relationship of the speaker to his audience, the “Lord,” in light of the relationship between human and mouse? In the traditional view, as links along a great chain of being stretching from most high to most low, God is to human as human is to mouse. Yet the speaker makes clear that the mouse is in many ways superior to the human. Is the reader to assume the same reversal occurs in the relationship of the human being to its God? This possibility seems likely, especially in consideration of the fancifully imagined relationship between the mouse and the mousetrap. If the latter, which to the human is a mere machine with an “effect of death,” is the core symbol of a mouse theology, what kind of mousetrap is the human Christian theology with its tree, its cross, its heaven and hell? One wonders what else but a machine might the human theology be to the God which has apparently baited it, set it in place, and now waits for it to snap the spiritual back of a too-venturesome human.

For the modern, secular audience, such considerations might seem to lack impact. Dugan, however, who throughout his work often bitterly defines himself against his Catholic upbringing, is, in a broader view, saying, “define your gods as you will, but beware stooping to that which is actually smaller than you”—a warning well heeded.

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